How A Team Of Scientists Dropped A One-Ton Science Lab On Mars Completely Unscathed

Mars rover CuriosityNASA’s Mars rover Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to snap a set of 55 high-resolution images on Oct. 31, 2012. Researchers stitched the pictures together to create this full-colour self-portrait.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

After seven unmanned minutes spent in terror, waiting for the culmination of decades of work, a scream of excitement shook the Curiosity rover’s control room on August 5.”Touchdown confirmed, we are safe on Mars,” engineer Allen Chen said over the radio, eliciting tears of joy and congratulatory hugs between all the blue-shirted Jet Propulsion Laboratory staff. After 350,000,000 miles and 253 days of travel since she took off from Earth, Curiosity was finally safe and sound in Mars’ Gale Crater.

With that, the NASA team that watched her land knew they had just pulled off a daring and nerve-wracking touchdown on the Red Planet unlike any ever attempted before. A rocket-powered sky crane had lowered the 1-ton rover to the Martian surface on cables, after parachuting through the planet’s thin atmosphere.

See Curiosity’s travels so far >
“I am terribly humbled by this experience,” the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Adam Steltzner, the leader of the rover’s entry, descent and landing team said at a press conference after the landing. “In my life, I am and will be forever satisfied if this is the greatest thing that I have ever given.”

Curiosity is on Mars to investigate several things, including studying the climate and geology, searching for signs of life and water, and determining if the planet could ever be made habitable for humans. She was made to last for a two-year mission, but with any luck (and judging by the hearty 9-years-and-still-going run of the Opportunity Mars rover) she will far outlast that.

Sadly, she’s likely to be stuck in Gale Crater forever, since there are no plans to bring her back to Earth, though future humans who may visit Mars may pay her a visit. Currently, she is in the 123rd Sol, or Martian day, of her mission.

The total cost of building, designing, launching and roving with this one-ton science lab on wheels? $2.5 Billion. Divided by the population, that cost each American $8. Money well spent.

The project was named Curiosity by Clara Ma, winner of a 2008 contest. Her official name, however is the Mars Science Laboratory. She’s called a science laboratory because she is loaded with science-doing tools. These include:

  • The Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin, instruments that use X-ray diffraction to identify and quantify the abundance of the minerals on Mars.
  • The rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument that analyses the soil and atmosphere around the rover using a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a tunable laser spectrometer to detect oxygen and carbon isotopes in carbon dioxide and methane samples to see if they are biochemical in origin.
  • The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, or ASPX, that irradiates samples of Martian soil to determine the elemental composition of the soil.
  • The Rover Environmental Monitoring System, or REMS, which watches the temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speeds, and UV radiation around the rover.
  • The Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, that has been monitoring the radiation on the surface of Mars since she first sat down there. This will help NASA learn if it would be safe for humans to roam the surface of the planet.

Curiosity is also decked out with several cameras, which she uses to take amazing pictures of the surface of the planet. The Mastcam takes true-colour images; the Chemcam can take high resolution images; NavCams and Hazcams take images all around the rover to make sure she doesn’t run into anything; the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, hangs out on the Rover’s robotic arm and can take high resolution images of microscopic rock and soil samples; and finally, the Mars Descent Image, or MARDI, takes images under the rover, especially important when analysing the EDL.

Curiosity isn’t just a hunk of metal: She has an energetic (and honestly adorable) personality conveyed through a Twitter account. She’s spawned multiple memes, and even the @sarcasticrover twitter account which follows her every move with snarky commentary.

Her team did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) to answer questions about the rover and her mission, and some of the more unique members of the team — Mowhawk Guy I’m talking to you — received marriage proposals after her successful touchdown.

We don’t know who is more impressive, actually: the rover herself or the team that runs her? One doesn’t work without the other that’s for sure. Click through to see what they’ve been accomplishing.

The entry, descent and landing of the rover on the surface of the Red Planet went off perfectly. See the video below to relive it or experience it for the first time. It's hard not to get caught up with the team's excitement.

During the descent, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to get a picture of the rover while she was falling to the surface. You can see the parachute slowing her descent in this image.

Here's what the landing looked like from the rover herself. The video starts with the heat shield (which protected Curiosity while she was falling through the atmosphere) being jettisoned and ends with the sky crane blowing up dust and the rover touching down on Mars. The camera, called MARDI, is on the bottom of the rover.

After she successfully landed on Mars, Curiosity quickly got to work and sent back her first image, seen below. The image is tiny because it's just a thumbnail — a larger size was sent back later.

From then the images just got better and better. Here's a self-portrait she took in early September.

So far, everything has worked on the rover. The only damage from the seven minutes of terror? A slightly broken wind sensor. Researchers have been able to analyse the data from the other wind booms to compensate, though.

After spending a full 17 days checking out her instruments and taking breathtaking images of her new home, Curiosity took her first drive.

Since then she's been driving and driving — covering more than 600 meters total and reaching the weird and interesting-looking place called Glenelg, where several types of rock seem to intersect.

While driving around, the rover spotted several instances of rounded pebble-looking rocks in a concrete-like conglomerate rock. These rocks indicate that Curiosity's been meandering around an area of Mars that used to be inundated with flowing water.

The findings from Jake, which NASA announced Oct. 12, indicated he was unlike any Martian stone ever seen, but similar to a type of well-known type of rock on Earth.

Before she reached Glenelg, the rover took a month-long break to play in the sand on a dune the team named Rocknest. She used the sand to clean out her scoop and her CheMin instrument, and analysed a sample.

The findings from Rocknest showed that Martian soils look a lot like Hawaiian sands. It includes the presence of miniature crystals of feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine mixed with other, non-crystalline material.

Soil analysis also indicates that there are simple carbon compounds in the sand at Rocknest, but the researchers can't say if this comes from biological origins or not.

The radiation detector has also been working hard since the rover landed — taking measurements night and day for three months. They've found that based on radiation levels, an astronaut could fly to Mars, stay for about 300 days, and fly back before reaching their maximum allowable radiation levels.

A Mars rover might make our list again in 2020, as NASA just announced plans to send another rover to Mars in eight years. The new rover will be put together using similar equipment to, and spare parts from, Curiosity, but will have different scientific instruments.

Currently, the rover is investigating Glenelg and the surrounding areas, and soon she will drill into a rock to get samples of the interior. Then, she's headed to her real destination, the foothills of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity is one of the Most Impressive People This Year. Now see who else made our list.

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